eels – electro-shock blues

Part 36 of a series that will run every Friday throughout 2012 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays

In the late Autumn of 2008 I received notice that my Grandfather (mom’s side) was deathly ill and in the hospital. I quickly made plans to grab a direct flight to Philadelphia from Seattle to spend a weekend with my Grandfather. It is a curious feeling to move 3000 miles away from where you grew up and start a new life. In the Pacific Northwest, my friends and family know who I am and what I stand for. We may not always agree, but we always have fun debating things over coffee. People who know me from my formative years in Pennsylvania can have differing opinions. An adult steps off of the plane, but is instantly viewed as a child. Questions about life choices (Why did you leave your parent’s faith?) and other preconceived notions could be read on the faces of family and old friends. All I wanted to do was spend time with my Grandfather. Music can be a godsend, and the soundtrack that helped me cope with these things on that weekend was electro-shock blues by eels.

The 2nd album by eels (it differs throughout the band’s history as The Eels or eels, I’ll stick with what is on the album cover) is inspired by eels main man Mark Everett’s tragic sense of loss and trying to make sense out of despair. He recorded the album after becoming the last living member of his family – his sister had recently committed suicide, his mother had succumbed to cancer, and his father had passed away years earlier from a heart attack (his father was famed Quantum Physicist Hugh Everett III). How does one react to such extreme loss? I remember sitting in my Grandfather’s hospital room watching his friends come into the room, uncomfortable with the whir of hospital machinery in the background. They’d make small talk and say things like “Hey, how’s it going Dave? Gonna get outta here soon, buddy”. It truly seemed like I was watching a badly scripted sitcom, as I watched my Grandfather holding on to the last strains of life and listen to these absurdities. I’d leave the hospital looking for solace, alone with my thoughts and this record. It is a sad record, but also provides hope amidst the despair. It didn’t prevent my tears from falling in the Fall of 2008, but it has truly helped me cope as moments of grief arise in this life.

Life is funny – But not ha ha funny (album breakdown)

Elizabeth on the Bathroom Floor – based off of one of Mark Everett’s sister’s last diary entries (I’ll refer to Mark as E sometimes in this piece as well since it is how he goes by). Swelling strings, acoustic guitar – a rising sound of electronic f/x that gives a sense of something amiss. Might be the saddest opening song of a record that I’ve ever heard. Lyrics:

Laying on the bathroom floor
Kitty licks my cheek once more
And i could try
But waking up is harder when you wanna die

Walter’s on the telephone
Tell him i am not at home
’cause i think that i am going
To a place where i am always high

My name’s Elizabeth
My life is shit and piss

Going to Your Funeral (Part 1) – Dark instrumentation throughout the song giving off a sense of anger. The lyrics seem to pick up right where the opener concluded – at his sister’s funeral. There are passages where the tune segues into a mid 90’s “alternative” kind of sound, reminding me of the 1st eel’s record, Beautiful Freak. It is shortly lived as the darkness overtakes everything. Anger is perfectly and poetically expressed here, in tandem with loss. Key lyrics:

Going to your funeral and feeling i could scream
Everything goes away
Driving down the highway through the perfect sunny dream
A perfect day for perfect pain

Look at all the people with the flowers in their hands
They put the flower on the box
That’s holding all the sand that was
That was once
That was once

Cancer for the Cure – a break from the darkness, heavy drums and a really catchy groove. Lyrics still throw in things that reference his personal life, but seem to be touching from a distance.  Fades away on an organ solo. “Ol’ blue eyes is back again / But he was never here in the first place / A heart attack may be something to fear / But take a look out back”

My Descent into Madness – Ridiculously catchy song with an upbeat vibe. Funny and poignant – the lyrics deal with E’s sisters mental health struggles, but are sung as if it is a perfectly normal pop song. “Come visit me tonight at eight o’clock / And then you’ll see how i am not the crazy one / Voices tell me I’m the shit”

3 Speed – my favorite song on the record. It evokes memories of childhood and helplessness as you want to help a loved one and simply cannot. Mournful backing, with emotion oozing out of every guitar lick, vocal nuance, and orchestral pluck of the strings. Grief can be very private, and yet every one of us at some time will experience these feelings. E conveys these thoughts perfectly here. Key lyrics:

Got a 3 speed and banana seat
Sitting back on the sissy bar
Went to sev and got a drink
Wish i was driving in daddy’s car

Life is funny
But not ha ha funny
Peculiar i guess
You think i got it all going my way
Then why am i such a fucking mess?

Hospital Food – one of the lighter moments on the album, it feels like something that would be the soundtrack to the Pink Panther. Jazzy interludes, mysterious horns, and shouted vocals. Late night cabaret masks the dark undercurrent of the lyrics. Key lyrics:

Hospital food
It’s gonna help the medicine go down
Want some hospital food
Gonna take a walk without a sound
A little hospital food
Helps the spoonful of sugar come up
I want some hospital food
In your blender and in my cup

electro-shock blues – fuzzy crackle of vinyl with piano before Mark Everett’s voice comes in, seemingly beamed in from another planet. It sounds muted and resigned, fitting for the topic he is singing about. Instrumentation is beautiful with no chorus to speak of. Key lyrics:

Feeling scared today
Write down “i am ok”
A hundred times the doctors say
I am ok
I am ok
I’m not ok

Efils’ God  – manipulated cello opens the song, feeling very much like something The Beatles would have done in the late 60’s. Melodic bass and drums enter the mix before it all fades away and we are left with E’s falsetto singing his heart out. The vibe is sad, but enters into a more optimistic sound 2 minutes in with E singing “Don’t tell me that I can’t do this / As if you knew”. Absolute perfection. I love this verse the best:

Now you can bring my suitcase
But you can’t bring me
And you can have all the money
’cause you say that you must
But if you think that it matters
Take a look at me
And don’t close your eyes as i turn into dust

Going to Your Funeral (Part 2) – a brief instrumental interlude, orchestral reprise of the 1st part. A respite from the sadness.

Last Stop: This Town – One of the catchiest tracks on the album, the sound is very much what passed for “Modern Rock” in the late 90’s. Angst filled guitar with waves of melody over top. There are flourishes of unique instrumentation throughout and noise filled breakdowns. Backing vocals by Elton Jones give it another dimension since his voice is so much deeper than E’s. “You’re dead but the world keeps spinning / Take a spin through the world you left”

Baby Genius – a song written about E’s father, with the music based on the carol “O Sanctissima”. Orchestral backing is the most prominent on this track. “Baby genius / Look how you’ve grown / Where do you go from here?”

Climbing to the Moon – just acoustic guitar and mournful vocals by E for the first minute or so before the song progressively builds into an optimistic feeling lullaby. The lyrics resonate deeply and are based on E’s visits to his sister to his sister in a mental health facility prior to her suicide. The vocals are some of the best laid down on an eel’s album – it is coming from a place that is real, and ultimately – tragic. Key lyrics:

So i wrote it all in a letter
But i don’t know if it came
The nurse she likes my writing
So she keeps it just like me
So that it won’t get away

Ant Farm – acoustic lament with E singing his heart out. Instrumentation is sparse in comparison to the rest of the album (with the possible exception of the closing track). “Hate a lot of things / But i love a few things / And you are one of them”

Dead of Winter – How does it feel to be sharing a moment with a loved one, knowing that death is close? Does your loved one know in their deepest thoughts that the end is near? Does hope overpower those dark thoughts? This track is about E’s feelings as he watched his mother go through radiation treatment for her terminal Cancer. His voice cracks with emotion at times as the acoustic guitar provides the perfect backing. A haunting track, simple but beautiful. Key lyrics:

So i know you’re going pretty soon
Radiation sore throat got your tongue
Magic markers tattoo you
And show it where to aim
And strangers break their promises
You won’t feel any
You won’t feel any pain

The Medication is Wearing Off – instruments separated in different channels as E’s voice brings it all together. It gives the feeling that it’ll be an acoustic lament, but when the drums – high in the mix – enter, it brings the song to another level. Extremely catchy but with lyrics that will make you give pause – this is deeply personal stuff. Key lyrics:

Step on a crack break your mother’s heart
Red light green light black
Suicide e-mail do not delete
Plug it back in the jack
Start to be what they want you to be
And you see yourself as they see you

P.S. You Rock My World – where do you go once you’ve experienced the loss of a loved one? The only thing you can do is try to regroup, love the memories you have – and get on with living your life. That’s what this concluding track is all about, and it fires on every cylinder. E’s vocals convey his emotions perfectly and the minimal orchestral backing is complimentary but not overwhelming. Key lyrics:

I was at a funeral the day i realized
I wanted to spend my life with you
Sitting down on the steps at the old post office
The flag was flying at half mast
And i was thinking ’bout how
Everyone is dying
And maybe it is time to live

This album is truly one of the greatest albums ever created. I really have enjoyed everything the band has released – but this one is simply perfection. It focuses on the pain (the only thing that’s real, as Johnny and Trent said), but also offers a window of hope. As time passes and the pain fades, you are left with the afterglow of warm memories. I believe music is truly a spiritual experience and this album is one that I would use as proof. Join me next week as I discuss Different Class by Pulp.

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